Emma’s interrogator said her arrest was part of a major
national operation, in which Christians in as many as 23 other Iranian
provinces had been detained. It was the day after Christmas in 2010, just two months since the
Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had warned in an infamous speech
in Qom that the spread of house-churches were among the “critical
threats” facing the Islamic Republic – by “deceiving young Muslims”.
It was a speech that made headlines around the world, and it seems as though Emma’s interrogator was one of those listening. “He said that if they don’t stop Christians, and the Church, the security of the country would be at risk,” Emma recalls… Emma, whose birth name was Azam Safaei, had been arrested at her home
in Bandar Abbas, southern Iran, early in the morning of 26 December.
“It was between 6.30am and 7am when someone rang our doorbell,” she
explains. “It was cloudy that day. I heard the bell, but I was still
sleepy. Suddenly, my husband, Peyman, said loudly: ‘Get up, grab
everything you can, and clean up. The MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence
Service] are here. They’re climbing over the wall!’”
Four male agents proceeded to enter their home, waking up their
school-age children, Negar and Navid, whom Emma says were “terrified and
wanted to know what had happened”. Eventually, the children were ordered to go outside and play in the garden “But out of curiosity, and also fear, from behind the curtain they
tried to look inside the house,” Emma says, until an officer ordered
them not to.
The agents then searched the property for anything related to
Christianity, placing all they found on the floor of the family’s main
room. These were the items that were to be confiscated. They included, in Emma’s words, “paintings of Jesus and the Last
Supper, a beautiful carved wooden cross, and a crystal cross we had
bought from Kish [an island in the Persian Gulf], different Christian
books, and a Bible which I had recently got for my mother”.
None of these items were ever returned. Search completed, Emma was escorted out of her home and told to keep
her head down as she was driven away to an unknown location. She was then blindfolded and made to hold onto a roll of paper, with which she was led into a building. “There were people laughing at me and telling me to be careful not to fall,” Emma explains…. She says that during her arrest, “the fear of being raped kept coming to my mind, and this made me suffer.
“We had heard a lot about the rapes of women, and even men, during
the detentions in 2009 [after mass protests]. We were not afraid of
going to prison, but we were afraid of being raped. “Once, a man entered my solitary cell, with his shoes on, and other
officers locked the door from the outside. I was very scared. “He had a piece of paper in his hand, and he asked me medical
questions. But after the interrogation ended, he asked, with a strange
smile on his face, ‘Do you have experience being arrested? Does your
husband know you’re here?’ I tensed up, became defensive, and didn’t
look into his face. I only said: ‘Yes, he knows I’m here.’”
When Emma later refused to sign a piece of paper committing to no
more involvement with Christians, she says her interrogator, knowing her
fear of rape, used this “weakness” to imply that if she stayed in
prison any longer, that would be the consequence. “He said with a grin: ‘It seems as though you like it here and would
like to stay longer?’ He had found my weakness, and started to speak
suggestively,” Emma says.
“I bowed my head and said that I wouldn’t sign what he had written –
that it would be like still being in prison, and take away my basic
rights. How could I not connect with anyone?” So the interrogator took another sheet of paper and changed some of the wording. This time it read: “You don’t have the right to evangelise. You don’t
have the right to gather with church members. You can’t travel from
Iran to Armenia or Turkey. You must obtain written permission to travel
to other cities within Iran… All until the judge issues a verdict.”
When Emma was finally brought before a judge – “a young man, strongly built” – she was struck by the cleanliness of the room. “It felt very odd to see such a clean room in that place,” she says.
“The smell of coffee also filled the room. Everyone was drinking
coffee.” This was in stark contrast to the place she had been held, which Emma
describes as “a very dirty room with no windows… My body was itching
because of the dust and dampness of the environment. The walls were
painted only superficially; beneath the paint, you could see the
scribbles of former prisoners. It was very depressing and suffocating.
“I asked for soap and they said there was soap. I told them that it was small and dirty. They laughed and said: ‘She thinks she’s come to a hotel!’” The judge told Emma that what she had said in her interrogations
about God being able to speak to people was blasphemy, and asked whether
she already knew that his verdict was going to be the death sentence. Emma’s response was both shocking and courageous.
“I said that if the God that I love issued my death sentence, then I
would be ready to die,” Emma says. “The judge became angry and said that
I was naive, looking for trouble, and that I had been deceived.” This wasn’t the first time Emma had been threatened with death for her decision to become a Christian.